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The curious legacy of Zack Mahoney

Assessing exactly what we had in “The Officer” during a strange and eventful three years at SU...

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

When you write about sports, posts don’t always age well. At times, it takes a full season to really see the depth of how incorrect you were. Others, it takes less than a week.

So was the case when I wrote “The Myth of Zack Mahoney’s Bad Game vs. Wake Forest.” On November 14, I was aiming for perspective, and tried to defend the senior quarterback after a strong first half and a disastrous final 30 minutes. Maybe I succeeded in that moment. Or perhaps I didn’t. But in any case, it would all be rendered moot just days later when he laid an egg vs. Louisville and was replaced by redshirt freshman Rex Culpepper.

I’ve been wrong here (and elsewhere) before. But maybe never so quickly. Rather than highlight the depths of my bad assessment here, though, thinking back on the piece does bring to mind the complicated legacy of “The Officer.”

When you tally up the results, Zack Mahoney’s case is a strange one, indeed (and yes, maybe stranger than that of Troy Nunes himself).

You all know his story by now: Mahoney was at DuPage, sent his tape to Scott Shafer and Tim Lester, then joined the Syracuse Orange as a walk-on in 2015. He fell just short in close-call losses vs. Clemson and LSU, then beat Boston College in Shafer’s final game as coach. He earned a scholarship that offseason, then capped off 2016 by breaking Jim Brown’s record for touchdowns in a game (along with numerous other achievements).

This year, he relieved an injured Eric Dungey once again, but only logged one truly serviceable half.

Mahoney’s record as a starter sits at 1-8, but when you look at the list of opponents, it’s hard to make a case he should’ve won more than three (max) of those games. The one-time option quarterback has the second-most yards (440 vs. Pitt) in a single game in school history. He’s one of just two Orange quarterbacks to throw five touchdowns in a game (the other is Ryan Nassib). Mahoney finishes his career 17th on the all-time yardage list, and just outside the top 10 in career touchdown passes.

He’s started just nine games.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

This is equal parts a referendum on just how minimal Syracuse’s passing game has been over the years, and on Mahoney’s atypical contribution to Orange football lore.

When you look at the names that dot the SU record books, most make sense. Sure, there are anomalies (Greg Paulus shows up more times than you’d imagine). But at least he started a full season.

Mahoney’s appearance is, of course, different. For all of the quality numbers he’s assembled, the wins never really came. Despite heroic performances against better teams (many here likely enjoyed an afternoon watching him go toe-to-toe with LSU and Clemson), there are just as many duds.

One reason Mahoney’s performance stands above the names around him (Rick Cassatta, Cam Dantley, to name a few) is because of where he arrived in the greater Syracuse football timeline. In 2015, there were folks actively pining for him to win the starting job outright. His brand of grit/toughness over talent was a hallmark of the Shafer era, and one he came to symbolize.

The biggest reason his resume will always stand out, however, is that Syracuse was never “his” team. That’s something that’s unique among players that almost throw for 2,000 yards anywhere, nevermind just at SU.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Going into this year’s final game against Boston College, I sort of hoped Mahoney would get the start over Culpepper. Not necessarily so that he’d play the full game. But so that he’d get one more shot on the Carrier Dome turf to take a few snaps, throw a few passes and say goodbye to a fan base that will never truly know how to remember him.

That moment never came. And even as the 28-point loss to Boston College was completely out of reach, his number wasn’t called.

I actually respect Babers for not making the switch there. Prior regimes certainly would’ve slotted Mahoney in at some point, if not played him for the entire meaningless game. But maybe it’s fitting that you’ll remember the Officer’s final Dome performance as one where he threw 60 passes, amassed 384 yards and tossed three TDs. The outcome of that contest (a blowout loss to Wake Forest after SU once held a 17-point lead) will prove inconsequential over time.

Strangely, that’s a fitting way to see Mahoney’s entire stay at Syracuse. The results never really mattered. And one day how many games he won will be some weird trivia among Orange fans. Perhaps it’s just recency talking right now, but I still think he’s remembered far more than most back-ups — even if we’re not sure what for, 20 years from now. And that’s probably just fine.